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FOR the first time in Britain, union membership in the UK is almost 55 per cent female — and in one of the largest unions, Unison, that rises to nearly 80 per cent.
Unison is due for leadership elections next year but to date has never had a female general secretary, and is far from unusual in that. Only 15 of the UK’s 54 unions are currently led by women.
Furthermore, says TUC equalities officer Scarlet Harris, “too few young women are joining unions. If we are going to be relevant to a new generation of trade unionists, we need our union structures and leadership to reflect our members.”
What can unions do to address this — and why is there a problem to address?
The roots extend far back through history, where we find British workers’ and women’s movements fairly consistently eyeing each other with mutual incomprehension, if not outright hostility.
When 1,500 British female mill workers went on strike in 1835 a commentator noted, only slightly wryly, that female militancy was “more menacing to established institutions even than the education of the lower orders.”
This tells us not only that female militancy is clearly an excellent thing which should be encouraged, but that something particular about it scared the beejeezus out of those “established institutions.”
Given their noted lack of enthusiasm for male militancy, too, what made it extra scary when it came from the distaff side?
The distaff is, in fact, part of the story.
While it had generally been accepted — until those crazy Victorians got in on the issue — that most women worked, this was more palatable when their work looked like an extension of “womanly duties.”
Spinning, weaving and helping menfolk in the fields or in family workshops were one thing, but come industrialisation a terrifying new figure stalked the land and haunted the fevered imaginations of the Establishment — the dreaded “factory girl.”
Suddenly, brash, confident, and alarmingly independent young women seemed to be everywhere on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities.
This was disturbing. If you had to be poor, polite Victorian society expected you to be suitably ashamed of your status and preferably rarely either seen or heard.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Matchgirl provided the template. The eponymous child match seller starves to death in a silent, picturesque manner, with gentle resignation, and absolutely no grumbling about workers’ rights.
Real “factory girls,” on the other hand, tended to travel en masse in noisy girl gangs.
They tended to exhibit a disgraceful lack of respect for their employers and cheek to respectable passers-by.
Their language was shocking and they were altogether far too fond of the pubs and music halls, when finances allowed.
Even worse, they worked — the hussies — alongside men who were not family members.
This alone was enough to put the wind right up polite society.
We know today that these appallingly paid workers were working themselves all too literally to death in terrible conditions. It seems bizarre that contemporaries suspected them of being good-time girls having a right old knees-up, if not an outright orgy, behind the factory gates. Chance would have been a fine thing.
But demonised they were, portrayed as a menace to society and threat to the entire racial stock, the Victorians being very keen on eugenics — probably the worst pseudo-scientific idea of all time.
So factory girls came to be blamed for everything, from drunkenness among the poor, chaotic home lives and high child mortality to prostitution.
Impressive, particularly when they had to fit all that in around a 16-hour working day.
However, it suited the better-off to blame working women for these social evils, rather than examine the ruthless exploitation and deliberate inequality which actually lay behind them. Plus ca change.
And beneath the platitudes was an attitude to working-class female sexuality which was both disapproving and more than a little pervy.
Labour reports of the 19th century were over-fond of illustrations of women industrial workers in states of semi-nudity.
Quite what was appropriate dress for, say, crawling through a hot, dirty mine shaft with a coal cart chained to your waist is not addressed — crinolined frock, hat and white gloves, with matching reticule? — but even those who knew better saw this as an example of working-class sluttiness.
One 19th-century mining commissioner wrote that “any sight more revolting or obscene than these girls at work cannot readily be imagined. No brothel can beat it.”
We can only speculate as to what Mrs Mining Commissioner made of this easy familiarity with the work of the brothel. But this was typical of the thanks British women got for being the backbone of industrialisation.
Accordingly, various disparate interest groups began to unite behind one aim — the “return” of woman to hearth and home.
Where were the unions in all of this?
When the TUC’s parliamentary secretary Henry Broadhurst addressed the Trades Union Congress in 1875 on the “problem of female labour,” he urged Congress to “bring about a condition where (our) wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world.”
This attitude to women workers — which persisted long after Broadhurst’s day — can be traced back to the movement’s historical development.
Even after trade unions stepped out of the shadows of illegality with the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824, for most of the 19th century they continued to organise only skilled workers, with few aims beyond the control of entry to their particular craft or trade and “to keep up the rate of wages.”
The organisation of the so-called semi-skilled or unskilled was seen as pointless and virtually impossible, an attitude which excluded many male and almost all female workers.
Against these odds, women did still organise — the first recorded all-female union was formed amongst Leicester hand-spinners in 1788, and was 18,500 strong.
Women’s work was undervalued, not just by unions but as a matter of societal convention.
According to the values of the Victorian era, “respectable” women, particularly mothers, simply did not work.
The truth — that textile industries in particular were dominated by women workers — came to public notice in part in the 1830s, when high infant mortality rates in and around cotton-milling districts became a national scandal.
Some reforms resulted, but society as a whole preferred to blame the “irresponsible” mothers rather than a factory system which made no provision for maternity leave or childcare.
Women workers were moved to less “visible” areas of production, to jobs which were immediately downgraded and devalued.
As cheap labour, women presented an economic threat to their male co-workers — and this is how trade unions tended to view them. Some male trade unionists were appalled by women’s exploitation, but they were in the minority.
So it was that, as far as many unions were concerned, “poor women became the enemy of poor men.”
This lead to a legacy of misunderstandings which hindered the development of the trade union movement.
This cost the movement dearly. An over-reliance on the paradigm of male manufacturing worker as trade unionist right through to the 1990s meant that Thatcher’s decimation of British manufacturing took seven million union members with it.
In 1888, a strike by Bryant & May match-factory women and girls actually began the modern trade union movement as we know it today. It’s taken 123 years to get this acknowledged.
I haven’t been around for all of them, though it sometimes feels like it and often looks like it. But I was delighted that their legacy was recognised by 700 guests, including the late lamented Bob Crow, at the first Matchwomen’s Festival last summer, and formally acknowledged by MPs in a parliamentary debate in October.
The matchwomen’s victorious strike kick-started the New Unionism movement. Had this only been acknowledged earlier, and the matchwomen not sidelined by labour history for so long, perhaps the TUC might not have had to launch a second New Unionism project in 1990, to address the neglect of women and non-traditional workers.
In 2013, a mere 145 years after the TUC was founded, it threw caution to the wind and appointed Frances O’Grady to its top job. Widely respected as she is, no-one, least of all O’Grady, is under any illusions that her gender alone is a magic wand. Change will take concerted action from the ground up and the top.
Scarlet Harris points out that while the European TUC and the International TUC also have their first female leaders, still “only just over a quarter of our affiliated unions are led by women.
“Many unions are looking at how reserved seats and proportionate representation might be used to ensure more representative decision-making committees.
“We need to make sure women are given every opportunity to influence the decision-making and bargaining agenda — from attending conferences to getting a seat at the table of regional and national committees.”
Unions such as the NUT — like several education unions it is female-led, by Christine Blower — are also looking at specific ways to engage with women and men in communities and increase their relevance to new generations.
Kiri Tunks of the NUT teaches in Bethnal Green, and told me: “The NUT’s Stand Up for Education campaign has seen hundreds of NUT members around the country organising street stalls, tea parties and education question times to do what this government has completely failed to do — talk to mums and dads and the wider community about the kind of education our children deserve.”
I can’t resist asking what the parents Tunks has spoken to make of dear old Micky Gove and his education “revolution.”
“Most responses are unprintable,” she smiles, “but they agree on one thing — Gove needs to listen to teachers.”
Work of this kind helps demonstrate that it is unions, and not the government, who are really “in it together” with the women and men of this country.
The movement has to move forward as it began — as a vital part of people’s lives, both representing and reflecting its membership. In other words, with women at the forefront.
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